Interhome, vacation rentals in Europe
Our first Slow Europe profile is with one of the oldest and largest vacation rental agencies based in Europe - Interhome.
Interhome Booth in Atlanta
I met Claudio Loretz, Vanessa Montgomery and Ivona Davidson from the US offices of Interhome in April, at the Atlanta Vacation Home Expo. They had a booth across from our Slow Travel booth. For years I have seen their local offices when traveling in Europe, read their catalogs and looked at their website. I was pleased to meet their US representatives.
The CEO of Interhome, Simon Lehmann, was part of a panel discussion at the travel show and I found it interesting to see the difference in attitudes between the American vacation rental agencies and Interhome. The American agencies represent high end villas in the Caribbean and Europe and are selling to wealthy travelers. Interhome sells to a variety of travelers, from the budget traveler to the luxury traveler.
Many Americans think that vacation rentals in Europe are large, expensive, staffed villas that an average American traveler could not afford. This is not the case. Vacation rentals in Europe are inexpensive when compared per person/per day to hotels. They offer American travelers good European travel experiences at the level of luxury they choose. Luxury villas, some with staff, are available, but there are many moderate and budget priced vacation rentals to choose from.
Interhome, a Swiss Agency
Interhome was founded by two Swiss entrepreneurs in 1965, when the concept of staying in vacation rentals was a novelty for most Europeans. The company has grown to have over 30,000 vacation rental properties in 21 countries (mostly Europe); over half a million people book their vacation rentals through Interhome each year. Interhome has been part of the Hotelplan Group (Switzerland's leading tour operator) since 1989, but operates independently.
Interhome is based in Zurich, Switzerland, with international offices in many countries. Even though they are a large company, they operate like a small personal agency with local offices and representatives in the countries where they have listings, so when choosing your vacation rental, you can call and consult with them and, when you are on vacation, if you need advice or help, they are close by.
Note, January 2009: Since this interview the US offices have been closed and Interhome now partners with ResortQuest.
Vacation Rentals From a Basic Apartment to a Luxury Villa
Interhome offers a good range of rentals from a simple apartment for two to a villa for a large group. I interviewed Claudio, managing director of North America for Interhome, for this article. He says that Interhome offers "everything from a basic city apartment studio to a five star villa with all the bells and whistles." Their city apartments have become very popular among travelers, especially in Rome, Paris and Barcelona. "A new up-coming destination is Croatia where we have a fantastic portfolio."
Interhome select their listings personally and work directly with the owners (except for some properties in Denmark and Finland where they work with local agencies). Some US agencies represent the Interhome listings, but the price is the always the same.
Having local Interhome offices in many of their popular locations lets them offer concierge-type services to the traveler - they will give you an introduction to the area, supply tourist information and can book services for you (e.g. a chef or a maid). When you see a vacation rental on their website, it is noted if there is a nearby local office.
90% of Interhome's Bookings are From Europeans
Interhome books over half a million people per year into their vacation rentals, but only 10% (around 50,000) are from the US and Canada. They created a US oriented website, with prices in dollars, and opened offices and a call center in the US to attract more North Americans. Claudio says "We are working hard to see the ratio from North American travelers increase!" There is a Spanish-language version of the US website to serve the Spanish-speaking community in the US. They also have a Canadian website in English and French, with rates in Canadian dollars.
Claudio told me about their US clients: "We have many 'Girl Friend Groups' that travel together, two or three couples that have similar interests renting a place together, families, wedding parties or honeymooners. Most of our clients are in their 50s and 60s, have a desire to explore and they value their privacy."
Italy is a Favorite Destination
Interhome's popular destinations are Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland and Austria. Claudio says that "Italy and France are by far the largest and in particular Tuscany and Umbria where we have about 4,000 properties."
I like vacation rentals because they let you get off the beaten American tourist path and join the European tourist path by staying in less familiar places - Swiss mountain towns, southern Tuscany near Lazio, the southwest corner of France or the Devon coast in England.
Cows on the Trail, Swiss Alps
Since I love traveling in Switzerland, I asked which Swiss locations they recommend for summer travel. "The Bernese Oberland is very popular for Americans and is one of Switzerland's most enchanted tourist regions.
Other areas that are very popular are: Grisons (St. Moritz, Davos, Arosa), Valais (Nendaz, Zermatt, Saas Fee) and Ticino (the Italian-speaking region). The Ticino is very much liked as it borders the Italian Lake District with Lake Como, Lake Garda, etc. and is extremely popular among Germans, Dutch and Swiss. Lake Geneva (Montreux) with its UNESCO protected vineyards and fantastic views is also a popular area."
During our slow times at the travel show I talked to Ivona and Vanessa about their properties. They told me about the Swiss Valais town of Nendaz and what a great destination it is, winter or summer. Vanessa recently had a ski vacation in Nendaz and sent me the photos of the chalet she rented - it was beautiful! I have vacationed in many Swiss mountains towns, but have not been to Nendaz - which is now at the top of my list.
Using the Interhome USA Website
The Interhome website is easy to use. If you are not comfortable searching on the Internet, they will send you their printed catalogs. If you don't have the time to search online for exactly what you want, they offer a vacation home matchmaker. Tell them what you are looking for and they send you a short list to choose from.
On the website you search by country, region and town (called "resort") or by type of vacation (beach, skiing, mountains, cities). Search by availability date if your vacation dates are set. The listings have good property descriptions with photos, availability calendars, area maps, destination information and online booking. If the listing is in a town with a local office, this is noted. (The local Interhome offices offer concierge services, giving you local information and arranging extra services, like maids or chefs.)
Interhome has assigned a star rating for each property overall and for some specifics about the property (location, outdoor area, interior, tranquility, kitchen, access road). If you want a less expensive vacation rental, look at their three star properties. These are good properties but with fewer "extras".
The online booking lets you book a property if it is available. You don't have to wait for days while the agency checks availability and then makes the booking. You can book online instantly with confirmation.
Some good features that you don't see on many vacation rental agency sites: create a shortlist (keep track of the listings you are considering), create a brochure (a PDF document is emailed to you), email a friend.
A Few Website Oddities: When you take a large website geared for Europeans and turn it into one geared for Americans, there are bound to be a few oddities. When searching for a rental, instead of entering a town, you enter a "resort" name. This is the name of the town. "Hotplate" is means stovetop. Apartment size is given in square meters. Multiply by 10 to get the approximate square footage (e.g. 50m2 is 500 square feet, a generous size for a 1bed/1bath apartment). Shortbreaks are a stay of less than a week. And my personal favorite, "in an elevated position", which probably means the house is on a hill. The text size on the website is a little small, but you can make it larger using your browser settings (in IE, click Page > Text Size and select largest).
Vacation Rentals are (Usually) By the Week
Most properties rent by the week, Saturday to Saturday, as is traditional in European vacation rentals. Prices on the website are in US dollars. All properties have a small booking fee ($30). Some properties have an additional cleaning fee.
Interhome booking conditions: 30% deposit on booking, balance paid 42 days before start of rental. Payment by credit card. 10% charge if cancelled 42 days or more before rental.
The one downside with vacation rentals, in a list of many upsides, is that you pay a large deposit when booking (which might be a year ahead), with the balance paid one or two months before the vacation. Nearly all vacation rentals in Europe have these booking conditions. No easy last minute changes to your trip plan! A vacation rental is not a hotel where there are many rooms and people book at the last minute. Most people book vacation rentals six months to a year ahead. If you cancel a month before your trip, it is unlikely that the property can be rebooked.
Interhome offers Cancellation Insurance as part of their booking process. They also have one of the best cancellation policies that I have seen. For cancellations up to 42 days before rental start date, there is a 10% charge. Since your deposit is 30%, part of your deposit is refunded - 10% of the total rental charge is the cancellation penalty. Many agencies/owners keep the entire deposit if you cancel before the final payment.
A Last Word from Interhome
I asked Claudio if there was anything that he would like to say to Americans who are thinking of booking with Interhome.
Claudio writes: "As you know vacation/villa rentals are a great way to experience a region in-depth and soak up the local flair and culture (that it saves money is a nice side-effect). Many people also love the option that they can provide some of their meals themselves and don't have to share the breakfast buffet with hundreds of others, as is the case with many hotels. Our clients tend to be well traveled, mature, higher educated, love arts, culture and culinary. We set up our US offices so that we can reach out to North Americans to show them this wonderful way to travel."
Claudio Loretz and Vanessa Montgomery were interviewed for this article.